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Restoring a local legacy

Omar's, the oldest continuously operated restaurant in Jackson county, has undergone a bit of a face-lift through the weekend and Monday. The restaurant/bar's famous camel painting, gracing the wall facing Siskiyou Boulevard, has been touched up by its creator, Deitz Vilks, while a damaged part of the parking lot railing was replaced as well.

There are very different worlds within Omar's. There is the restaurant side, famous in Ashland for its fresh seafood, robust steaks, lacquered interiors and quality service. Families curl around tables in the tight-packed room, dining and carrying one amidst a regal atmosphere. Then there's the bar side, meeting ground for professors and college students alike, amidst libation, tunes and surrounding wall mounted televisions flickering a myriad of silent sporting events. A friendly chirp always emits from the row of lotto machines like a digital mating call and coiled columns of smoke are pulled through the dimly lit room into the Smokeeter ventilation machine as the jukebox takes a union break and the regulars huddle around talking shop.

The iconography connecting those two worlds has long since been the giant Siskiyou wall camel. Dietz, who painted the wall originally in 1975, said that, other than a couple of slight changes to the color scheme, the restored painting looks, "Pretty much the same," as it did back in the seventies.

Omar's has always had a flavored history in the Rogue Valley, since its opening in 1946. Constructed by Hollywood chef Omer Hill, and his wife, Hazel, the steak and chicken house had its first bit of history when the sign came back misprinted as "Omar's." Hill kept the sign anyway, which still stands outside these many years later.

Originally, Omar's was much smaller, aspiring to remain but a restaurant. Hill considered expanding the dining room, but the mayor of Ashland at the time asked Hill to open a bar instead. At the time, the only place to get a drink in the city was the Elk's Lodge, making Omar's Ashland's first public bar, as well as, being located on the Southern Oregon University campus, the only bar in Oregon to be located on a college campus.

Co-owner Bruce Dwight had been planning an overhaul of the whole restaurant but decided to hold back for awhile. In September, however, an automobile accident in the parking lot damaged the intricate railing and part of the painting and cracking a cinder block, leading Dwight to call in Vilks for a fix up.

All of this cosmetic restoration comes just in time for Omar's to celebrate its 60th anniversary on November 6. The week will offer many celebratory deals for customers designed at reminding locals of Omar's legacy. "Ashland locals have made and kept Omar's," said Dwight. Festivities include a special 60 cent lunch on Tuesday, free steak dinner for anyone born on the sixth of November in 1946, general discounts on food and beverages and a drawing for a gift pack worth at least $500. As for the famed camel welcoming locals and visitors alike, "I did it once, I can do it twice," said Vilks, who originally gridded off the image based on the design on a pack of cigarettes. "Ashland was a different place back then."

"Over the years there is color that goes along with the building," said Dwight. Adding to that colorful history of Omar's has been former management implicated in a counterfeiting scheme and a past armed robbery. Through it all however, despite the occasional calamity, Omar's has maintained one of the cleanest local reputations among local bars through all the years, often serving as proving ground for aspiring local business owners, bar keeps and restaurant managers. Since then, Omar's has been a local treasure with one of the more lauded dining menus in the city.